Monday, August 22, 2011

Monday Muse: The Endangered Poem Project

Tim Brookes, who claims to have "fled" England for the United States some three decades ago — he eventually landed in Vermont — delights in "adventures in writing". See, for example, his posts at Egypt Diary, The Greatest Guitarist, and A Heart in Chaos, the latter of which he describes as "[p]art blog, part personal narrative, part scientific inquiry, and possible book-in-progress". His day job is directing the professional writing program at Champlain College, in Burlington, Vermont.

An ordinary writer he is not. And because Brookes has so curious a mind, he engages in intriguing projects. One, The Endangered Alphabets Project, seeks to demonstrate in "a unique and vivid way... the issue of disappearing languages and the global loss of cultural diversity". Currently, that project includes an exhibition of 14 18-inch by 12-inch carvings, each of an endangered alphabet: Inuktitut, Baybayin, Manchu, Bugis, Bassa Vah, Cherokee, Samaritan, Mandaic, Syriac, Khmer, Pahauh Hmong, Balinese, Tifinagh, and Nom. Brookes's goal is to double the number of alphabets preserved and to take his project on the road to enlighten us about the importance of preserving these writing systems and the traditional cultures that created them. Brookes makes his carvings from beautiful slabs of Vermont curly maple, none the same in shape. To date, the carvings have been shown in Wales, at Rutgers University, Middlebury College, the University of Vermont, and several other colleges and universities, as well as at a number of libraries in New England. 

Begun in 2009, the project, which receives no funding from any grants agency or foundation but is receiving donations through Kickstarter, also has found its way into a book: Endangered Alphabets: An Essay on Writing, with an introduction by David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. (For progress on the project, enjoy Brookes's occasional blog, where he documents what he's doing and what he's learning. The scripts are beautifully produced. To view images of some of the carvings, go here.)

Fascinating as Endangered Alphabets is, I'm especially interested in Brookes's most recent related project: The Endangered Poem Project. This project, too, involves carvings intended to "draw attention to the world's vanishing scripts" and our need to preserve their written and spoken forms.

The plan, as Brookes describes it, is to have a four-line poem he wrote — These are our words, shaped / By our hands, our tools, / Our history. Lose them / And we lose ourselves. — translated into 16-20 endangered languages in their original scripts (he currently has eight translations and has been promised 12 more), which Brookes then will carve into a vertical-standing sculptural form comprising four boards, each board facing a compass point, the overall effect being something like "a tall, hollow, wooden box". Brookes uses carbon paper to transfer the texts to the maple slabs. As of mid-June, Brookes had completed two of the boards. Some images of the carvings, including a photograph of one of the six-foot slabs, are here

Brookes also envisions the text versions of the poem projected onto sides of large buildings in New York City. (His collaborator for this is Bob Holman, who has received a grant that will enable him to create the projections.)

Brookes is getting some serious attention for his labor of love. And rightly so. He is bringing together art and linguistic science to create something that is both aesthetically beautiful and culturally important. We all have a stake in his projects' outcomes.

Endangered Alphabets on FaceBook

Booking Information for Endangered Alphabets

Edward Tenner, "The Eerie Beauty of Rare Alphabets", The Atlantic, August 1, 2011

Tim Brookes, "An Essay in Wood" in Ogmios, Newsletter of Foundation for Endangered Languages, August 31, 2010 (pdf; scroll down to page 4.) In this interesting essay, Brookes fully describes his project and how he is creating the carved boards.

Omniglot, Writing Systems and Languages of the World

Profile of Tim Brookes at Champlain College

In this video, Brookes explains the script Baybayin.


See this Smithsonian Collections post about the Recovering Voices project focused on endangered languages and indigenous knowledge.

UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger


Hannah Stephenson said...

Just like animals and plants, knowledge can go extinct--this is a wonderful project.

Louise Gallagher said...

The poem he wrote for that second panel is stunning.

His passion is inspiring -- and what he is doing is important.

Thanks Maureen!

Brian Miller said...

what an intriguing project...thanks for the intro maureen...and for your wonderful words at dverse today...smiles.

Tim Brookes said...

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and kind comments. Three months later, people are still visiting my site from yours--a tribute to the power of your own writing!